July 29, 2022 – א׳ אָב תשפ״ב
I can still remember the phone call late at night on July 31, 2002. There had been a bombing at the Frank Sinatra cafeteria on the Hebrew University campus. A worker-turned-Hamas-terrorist had snuck in a suitcase packed with explosives, set it down on a chair during the lunchtime rush hour, and left. The shrill voice on the other end of the line said, “We can’t find Marla. She was at Hebrew U this morning where the pigua was.” My friend called back an hour later with tears choking her voice unable to speak. The unfathomable had happened, that one of our friends, one of our group, one of us, was among the dead in this latest attack.
Marla Ann Bennett was studying for her last final exam at the cafeteria that many of us had frequented so often with her friends Ben and Jaime. She was part of the Pardes Educators program, a joint program with Hebrew University, and despite the difficult situation in Israel during the early 2000s – with frequent terrorist attacks and encouragement from her parents to return home – she stayed. In early 2002, she wrote:
“Each morning when I leave my apartment building, I have an important question to contemplate: Should I turn left, or should I turn right? This question may seem inconsequential, but the events of the past few months in Israel have led me to believe that each small decision I make–by which route to walk to school, whether to go out to dinner–may have life-threatening consequences.”
I met Marla a few years prior during our year at the Hebrew University. She was smart, kind, cheerful, and passionate. She asked questions and had a quiet and gentle way of making people feel comfortable. At the end of college, she made a pro-con list about returning to Israel. There were many items in the “con” list, including all the practical reasons about career, family, and life. But in the end, she looked up and said “But, it’s Israel! And that’s where I want to be.”
Marla’s words here reflect that sentiment::
“I got the ‘Israel bug’ during my junior year when I studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. I had traveled in Israel before but living here was a qualitatively different experience. I left knowing I would return. I was not sure whether I would study or work, but I knew that my love for Israel, my desire to understand this country, and my desire to learn more about Judaism were not yet satiated.”
When the bomb went off, she and her friend Ben were killed instantly, while their friend Jamie – also sitting at the same table – had bent down to take something from her bag. When they found her lying in the plaza outside the cafeteria, unrecognizable, she was taken to the hospital with “moderate” wounds, which might be the greatest understatement ever. Jamie’s husband, in dealing with the trauma of this event, wrote the following book: What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife? A Memoir By David Harris-Gershon.
The circle of Marla’s friends and loved ones reach people across the globe. So many of us had our own cherished “Marla moments,” and as Rav Danny Landes shared:
“Marla, it was her smile that just made you feel terrific. I have never met anyone who had so many people tell me, ‘Don’t tell anyone so they won’t feel bad, but I was Marla’s best friend.’ And that included not only the intellectuals and impassioned activists but the ancient bent-over lady I met randomly that Marla helped shop and actually paid for much of her groceries.”
That’s the kind of person she was. She was inspired and inspiring, passionate and caring. She left a friend trail wherever she went.
I often wonder about the great things she would have done, the inspiring leader and brilliant educator she would have become. I think about what her students would learn, and what her family would be like. Whether she would have eventually built her life in Israel or in the States, we’ll never know. What we do know is that her memory has inspired thousands. Whether it’s the Marla Bennett fellows at UC Berkely Hillel, those that hear her story at camp or synagogue, or see her picture hanging at the Pardes Institute and are inspired by her life and outlook.
Why am I sharing this with you today?
Today is Rosh Hodesh Av. The month of Av brings with it a sense of devastation and redemption. It represents the importance of reflection, mourning, redemption, and love as well as a key moment in the Jewish agricultural calendar: the beginning of the grape harvest. Today we begin the traditional 9-days of mourning leading to Tisha B’Av commemorating the destruction of the Temples (and many other things), and later this month we celebrate Tu B’Av, our day of love.
In remembering Marla, we remember a life lost too early, the destruction, and the mourning along with the countless lives touched in the aftermath.
Michael Simon, Director of Northwestern University Hillel, and Marla’s boyfriend shared the following this past Yom HaZikaron:
“And yet, for me, and for Marla’s parents, and for everyone who knew and loved her, Marla will always be 24 years old. Frozen in time. Her dreams of becoming a teacher who would have impacted and touched countless lives is forever cut short.
So, I continue to tell Marla’s story. And children continue to be named after her – at least 25 at last count. Memorials and scholarships and days of service exist to honor her memory. I try to honor her memory when I speak of her.
Yet, even as I speak to you about Marla, I wonder: When will it be time for me to tell my sons, Jacob and Ethan, that their Daddy once loved a woman who was murdered by terrorists who hated Jews and who hated Israel?
After the bombing, my most fervent hope was that there would come a time when Israelis – and Palestinians – will no longer have to tell stories about their loved ones lost in this brutal, devastating conflict.
We all know all too well, just from the news of violence in recent weeks, that that time is not yet here.”
My hope is for Marla Ann Bennett’s story to inspire our next generation.
Inspire them to learn. To go deep into our textual tradition, Torah, Talmud, etc.
To experiment with observance, and to be part of a Jewish community.
And to go to Israel.
Go for the summer, and for the semester.
Go on a gap year, and go as university students and adults to explore on your own.
Yes, among the younger generation there is a sentiment of harsh criticism of Israel. But more worrisome in my mind is the growing apathy and sentiment that Israel simply has no place in our lives. I have met more than one rabbinical student who shared that they don’t know why they need to spend time in Israel as part of their rabbinical studies as it will likely play no role in their rabbinate, which is maybe representative of a broader sentiment.
Marla dreamed of a day when there could be peace, and in her memory, I hope that as we approach Israel’s 75th anniversary of independence and 150 years of the URJ/UAHC, my hope is that we can create more students who share Marla’s story and feelings. Marla wrote:
“As I look ahead to the next year and a half that I will spend in Israel, I feel excited, worried, but more than anything else, lucky. I am excited that I can spend another year and a half in a place that truly feels like home, a home in which I am surrounded by an amazing community of bright and interesting friends who constantly help me to question and define myself. I am worried for Israel—a historic moment this is, but also difficult and unpredictable. I feel lucky because the excitement always wins out over the worry. The exhilaration of Torah and Talmud study, close friendships and a lively community far outweigh the fears. Stimulation abounds in Jerusalem—and I need only go to the supermarket to be struck once again by how lucky I am to live here. There is no other place in the world where I would rather be right now.”
In Marla’s memory, I leave you with the following poem by Yehuda Amichai for your Shabbat Study.
Shabbat Shalom and Hodesh Tov.
קוטר הפצצה היה שלושים סנטימטרים
וקוטר תחום פגיעתה כשבעה מטרים
ובו ארבעה הרוגים ואחד עשר פצועים.
ומסביב לאלה, במעגל גדול יותר
של כאב וזמן, פזורים שני בתי חולים
ובית קברות אחד. אבל האשה
הצעירה, שנקברה במקום שממנו
באה, במרחק של למעלה ממאה קילומטרים,
מגדילה את המעגל מאוד מאוד,
והאיש הבודד הבוכה על מותה
בירכתי אחת ממדינות הים הרחוקות,
מכליל במעגל את כל העולם.
ולא אדבר כלל על זעקת יתומים
המגיעה עד לכיסא האלוהים
ומשם והלאה ועושה
את המעגל לאין סוף ואין אלוהים
The Diameter of the Bomb
The diameter of the bomb was thirty centimeters
and the diameter of its effective range about seven meters,
with four dead and eleven wounded.
And around these, in a larger circle
of pain and time, two hospitals are scattered
and one graveyard. But the young woman
who was buried in the city she came from,
at a distance of more than a hundred kilometers,
enlarges the circle considerably,
and the solitary man mourning her death
at the distant shores of a country far across the sea
includes the entire world in the circle.
And I won’t even mention the crying of orphans
that reaches up to the throne of God and
beyond, making a circle with no end and no God.
-Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000)